Family engagement plays a powerful role in the academic lives of students and is often what sets successful schools apart from others. Research shows that when families are engaged in learning, students demonstrate better grades, test scores, attendance, and behavior (Henderson, Mapp, 2002).
In one example, after training their teachers on relationship-building strategies and focusing on building school-home partnerships, Stanton Elementary (the lowest-performing school in Washington D.C.) saw reading scores increase by 10 percentage points and math scores increase by 19 percent points – all within in a single year (Anne T Henderson). There are many similar examples from schools across the country, making the research clear: family engagement has the power to increase school performance and drive student success.
However, to yield these positive, impactful results, family engagement must be a core component of the school and a shared mindset among all staff. As stated in a report by Anne Henderson, “engaging families is not an add-on to what schools do. For parent engagement to be truly effective, it must be central to their core mission, influencing the way schools are physically designed, the style and tone of reporting on student progress, and the culture within which all parent-teacher-student communications take place” (Anne T Henderson).
Too often, family engagement is regarded as an initiative, or supplemental. But it can’t be if schools want to see truly effective results. So the answer seems simple: just make family engagement core to the mission of the school. However, there are a couple of factors that make this a complex challenge for schools and districts.
When educators begin their careers, their preparation program has strongly prepared them for many aspects of teaching, but family engagement is not one of them. According to a report by the Parent Organization Network (PON), the lack of family engagement training in teacher pre-service is the root cause of the disconnect between research and practice, resulting in many of today’s ineffective family-school partnerships (Parent Organization Network, 2020).
This lack of training consequentially affects teachers when they enter the classroom. In 2005, a national survey by MetLife identified that engaging families was the number one area where teachers felt least prepared and also represented their greatest challenge (qtd. in Anne T Henderson). In 2011, Nevada’s Colleges of Education conducted a survey with post-student teachers who also identified being unprepared to work with families to engage them in their children’s learning (Parent Organization Network, 2020).
The lack of preparedness that teachers feel results directly from the absence of family engagement curriculum in teacher preparation programs. In 2000, Broussard’s survey of colleges of education (COE’s) across the United States found that less than 6% of elementary and middle school teacher preparation programs required students to learn about families through their coursework (qtd. in Brown et al., 2014).
In recent years, attempts to standardize family engagement within pre-service programs have been made across the country. But even while laws and requirements are now more closely aligned and largely based on research, the PON report found that “performance and content expectations on family engagement are not uniform across educator credential programs. The performance expectations for elementary and secondary teachers are often at odds with the standards, promoting outdated, “talk at” practices instead of critically important two-way communication, interactions, and relationships, which research shows are key to effective family engagement” (Parent Organization Network, 2020).
Unfortunately, schools and districts must deal with the fact that many of their teachers are entering service without uniform, or in some cases any, family engagement training – thus creating a clear gap in understanding of effective family engagement practices. As previously mentioned, to achieve truly effective family engagement in schools, it must be a core strategy and common mindset among all staff. Therefore, school districts must fill this void through in-service professional development if they wish to see positive changes in their schools.
Regardless of whether staff members received some sort of family engagement training during pre-service, or have since attended a family engagement workshop, presentation, or keynote, there is often still a disconnect between understanding research concepts and applying them in practice.
As it turns out, most family engagement programs are good at building a participant’s understanding of what good family engagement is and motivating them to incorporate it as a practice. The problem is, these opportunities either aren’t in-depth enough for staff to learn specific strategies, or they don’t address the specific practices of individual staff roles (i.e. teachers, principles, etc).
For instance, as mentioned in the article Parent Teacher Education Connection: Preparing Preservice Teachers for Family Engagement, “training that is provided does not address all issues salient to effective parent involvement in sufficient depth” (Brown et al., 2014). The article goes on to provide this example: “Epstein and Sanders found that parent involvement courses stressed some topics significant to facilitating parent involvement, such as how to conduct a parent-teacher conference, how to organize and involve volunteers, and how to work with parents on school decision making teams, but not on such important areas as how to design interactive parent-student homework, how to create newsletters, or how to conduct parent workshops” (Brown et al., 2014).
It’s critical that family engagement programs connect practical and applicable strategies to the surface-level concepts and principles. It’s also important that both school leaders and teachers receive individualized training that can be applied to their own schools and classrooms. Day-to-day family engagement responsibilities and practices in a teacher’s role are much different than they are in a leadership role.
Professional development that offers in-depth material regarding actionable practices and strategies for staff members, rather than surface-level topics, will help schools transform learning into practice and ultimately unify schools with common thinking and strategy.
For schools and districts that are looking to make family engagement a core practice and further the knowledge of their staff, Livingtree’s professional development provides actionable learning that helps staff learn, practice, and apply family engagement strategies. The training, which is now offered as an online program for schools and districts, offers teacher and leadership-specific courses that increase their capacity of effective practices, help them create better parent interactions and communications, and guide them in creating school improvement plans, to ultimately enhance family engagement in their schools.
Learn more about Livingtree’s professional development here.